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July 2005: The Rest of the Story

July 1, 2005

Two months ago in The Heartlander I described how The Heartland Institute evolved over the years [“The More We Change,” May].

Two months ago in The Heartlander I described how The Heartland Institute evolved over the years [“The More We Change,” May]. It generated a surprising amount of feedback, mostly focused on two questions: Why do we focus so much on state (and now also local) elected officials, and what, if anything, are we doing in Illinois, our own backyard? So this month, I’ll fill in the blanks.

Finding Leverage

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the U.S. in 2005 is 295 million, and growing by 3.1 million people a year. Obviously, we cannot reach every person, so we have to focus on smaller, highly leveraged, audiences.

We could try to focus on journalists, since their publications reach a large part of the adult population, and to an extent we do. Each year we send hundreds of op-eds, news releases, and media alerts to a constantly updated list of more than 6,000 journalists, resulting in more than 1,000 media “hits” reaching tens of millions of people.

But fewer and fewer people read newspapers; the attention devoted to public policy in newspapers and television, never great in the first place, is shrinking; and media bias and spin make this a difficult arena for us to compete in. It’s important that we have a presence here, but we can’t rely on the establishment media to carry our message to a general audience.

Other groups focus on college students, academics, high school teachers, and people who already embrace a free-market philosophy--the “choir.” These are important and highly leveraged audiences, too, but we thought it important to target an audience overlooked by other groups.

16,000 Elected Officials

There are approximately 7,500 state elected officials--governors, secretaries of state, attorneys general, state representatives, and state senators. There are approximately 8,500 mayors and city council members in the nation’s 362 largest cities, which encompass nearly 70 percent of the country’s population. So the total size of this audience is about 16,000.

State and local elected officials are a terrifically leveraged audience. Unlike journalists or academics, elected officials actually write laws and vote on them. In 2003 they controlled tax receipts of $1.5 trillion (including $324 billion in federal transfers) and spent $1.3 trillion. (The federal government spent “only” $757 billion that year.) Like the federal government, state and local officials have racked up an enormous amount of debt: $1.55 trillion in 2001.

So state and local governments raise and spend nearly twice as much as the federal government. They also play a much bigger role in education, health care, and environmental regulation than the federal government does ... though the federal government keeps trying.

Still Reading Mail

Unlike most federal elected officials, state and local officials are often “citizen legislators”--they have real jobs in the real world that they go back to when legislatures or city councils are not in session. They are our neighbors and friends, perhaps even coworkers and relatives. They tend to serve a few terms and then return to their private-sector jobs. Politics, in short, is not their career.

Also unlike federal elected officials, state and local officials often have very little staff to filter the information they receive or to make decisions for them. They still read their mail, reply to letters and phone calls, and meet with constituents and people like us, who have ideas and suggestions we wish to share. In other words, they are accessible. Often, they are still making up their minds about public policy issues.

How to Reach Them

For all these reasons, targeting state and local elected officials makes great sense for a free-market think tank with limited resources but unlimited ideas. The challenge that remains, however, is to get the attention of these very busy citizen legislators, and to convince them we are a credible and reliable source of information they can use.

In order to do this, Heartland has had to largely abandon the traditional tools of a think tank: policy studies, books, and conferences. (Actually, we still do each of these, because in some circumstances they still work, but they are a small and declining part of what we do.) Instead, we invented something entirely new: the public policy newspaper.

Tabloid-sized, 20 pages long, and filled with short articles, pictures, and news, these monthly publications correspond exactly with what busy elected officials have told us they need and use on a daily basis. They feature the best writing by experts on the staffs of other leading think tanks: the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, Reason Foundation, National Center for Policy Analysis, and more than three dozen other think tanks and advocacy groups. As I reported two months ago, we commission an annual poll of state legislators to see if elected officials actually read our newspapers. The most recent poll, conducted last October, found a remarkable 86 percent said they read at least one of our publications “sometimes” or “always.” Sixty percent said they read Health Care News. Nearly half said one of our newspapers changed their opinion or led to a change in public policy. These are huge numbers.

Here’s what all this means: The Heartland Institute has “broken the code” on how to get through to busy state and local elected officials, a highly leveraged audience of about 16,000 men and women who together control $1.5 trillion in tax collections each year, nearly twice what the federal government collects, and who largely determine how our schools and health care are financed and how the environment is protected through regulations.

What about Illinois?

When Heartland decided to focus on state elected officials nationwide, we had to give up another part of our portfolio: covering Illinois-specific issues. On the one hand this was unfortunate, because it left a large and important state without a true state-based free-market think tank. On the other hand, I had already concluded the situation in Illinois was hopeless.

Illinois’ political scene has been deeply and perversely warped by historical events. Republicans held the governor’s office for 25 straight years (until the election of Gov. Rod Blagojevich). None of the Republican governors was a conservative, one was a liberal, and at least one was a crook. The business community, which in other states could be counted on to support conservative causes, felt it didn’t need to in Illinois because it could buy whatever it wanted from the governor’s party.

The Republican Party in other states moved to the right as its national leadership (starting with Ronald Reagan) became more conservative. But the Illinois Republican Party felt it didn’t need to. So gradually its ranks were filled with largely mediocre and moderate seat-warmers. The Republican Party abandoned Chicago and Cook County, and grassroots activists abandoned the Republican Party.

This left the conservative movement in Illinois looking and acting like a one-winged duck. There was little or no money for economic conservative groups, like Heartland, so we gave up and focused on issues in other states. The remaining conservative groups focused on cultural issues--homosexuality, abortion, and pornography--which alienated them even further from moderates who run the Republican Party and the business community.

Add in the usual personality conflicts that rise to the surface when money is scarce and failure abundant, and you get something approaching a death spiral. That is why Democrats won all state offices (except one) and majorities in both houses of the legislature in 2004.

A few conservative organizations still operate in Illinois and a good free-market think tank, the Illinois Policy Institute, has started in Springfield. I wish them luck and stand willing to help when I can, but they have a very tough battle ahead of them.

And that, fair reader, is the rest of the story.

Joseph L. Bast ( is president of The Heartland Institute.

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Joseph Bast is a Senior Fellow at The Heartland Institute. He cofounded Heartland in 1984, serving as executive director then as president & CEO until January 2018. His research and writing focuses on climate change and energy policy. @JosephLBast